visiting

This entry is part 7 of 18 in the series Memoir

I grew up on a busy street in Chicago. By age six I could cross four lanes of traffic by myself, and by nine I negotiated mass transit — el and bus — alone, without much trouble. I’m not in the least bothered by the sound of traffic at night. It actually is a comforting sound to me.

The 60s and 70s in working class Chicago were a lot like the 50s and 40s, from the stories I’ve heard. This was long before the technological jump. I learned to type on a manual typewriter. I didn’t know anybody with an answering machine until I was twenty-one. Back then you called and let it ring, and eventually you gave up. If you wanted to leave somebody a message, here’s what you did:

You walked over. In the late afternoon or early evening, especially in the summer, you left the house and walked down the street to knock on the door or call through the screen. You didn’t telephone first, but nobody was put out by a visit. You sat in the kitchen and passed along whatever information it was you needed to share. You might stay ten minutes, or maybe you’d stay longer. Drink some pop, watch the baseball game on channel nine. There might be other people there, visiting. Everybody scooted closer together.

We sat on each other’s stoops and came in the kitchen door to get a drink of water or use the bathroom. My father’s friends came over a lot, sometimes as many as five of them who arrived separately, no plan to it at all. They’d sit in the kitchen with the revolving fan and eat and drink and talk. My father could not have five people in his kitchen and not cook for them. I found it boring so I mostly stayed in the front room or my bedroom. Sometimes my father would call me in to ask me a question, or to send me to the store for something. I’d say hello to all the grownups and they’d fuss over me a little. My father had a friend called Ray, the most educated guy in the group, who was a chemist. I don’t remember ever seeing Ray sober. He was one of those soft spoken, gentle drunks who smiled at everybody. He’d press money on any kid who happened to pass him. He had no family of his own, and he made a good salary. In those days parents didn’t stop their kids from accepting money or gifts, even from friendly neighborhood drunks. Once he gave me a twenty, but all my father did was shout: hey, Ray! You see what you’re doing? That’s a twenty.

My father didn’t object because he pressed money on kids too. Every male in the family did. My uncle Freddy would have his hand in his pocket while you were coming in the door, and he’d press a couple bills into your hand while he was saying hello, bending in close to look you in the eye, one hand on your shoulder. Whatever your problem might be, he was going to tackle it.

We live out in the county now, on a wooded acre. It’s very quiet here. On a summer night with the windows open there’s no sound of traffic. A few of our neighbors are good friends, but we don’t just stop by, and neither do they. It’s just not something people do here. I don’t know if they used to, but I think probably. There are still remnants of that back and forth visiting in some of the old neighborhoods.

Which was one of the reasons that I voted for finding a house in those neighborhoods. The Mathematician wanted to be out here in the county; I wanted the big corner lot with the 1910 craftsman with all the original woodwork and glass, the fenced yard, and a half dozen friends within a couple blocks. I was imagining that it would be something like the neighborhood where I grew up. You go over to tell the neighbor about the problem you’re having with your plumbing and to ask for advice, and maybe you don’t come back for an hour. Somebody else drops by to ask if you’re going to the farmer’s market on Saturday and that turns into a big discussion about produce and organic farming.

In the greater scheme of things it made more sense for us to be out here in the county, and so I eventually agreed. And now I like it here. I am very comfortable in the house, and I love the garden and the quiet. It’s a ten minute drive into town along the bay, and in some spots it looks a lot like northern Italy around Lake Como. I can imagine us staying here for good. Puttering around in the garden at eighty, waiting for the grandchildren to come by. There’s no guarantee, of course. But I can imagine it.

And I still miss, will probably always miss, living in a neighborhood in a city. Being close enough to walk to the store, to a friend’s house, to the park. I’m a city girl at heart.

I’m not sure why all this came into my head today, but the memories of what it was like in Chicago when I was growing up have been front and center. Bit a little nostalgia goes a long way and so I’ll get back to work.

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17 Replies to “visiting”

  1. Pop? Yankee! Air conditioning. I blame it all on air conditioning. No one sits out on the front porch anymore trying to get cool. So no one stops to visit the person in the swing on the porch. Here we still raise a hand in greeting, whether the person is walking by or driving by. It doesn’t matter if we know them or not. Of course, the not-from-here people look somewhat askance at the waver.

  2. You reminded me of my childhood, but I grew up in a neighborhood that was dubbed poor by outsiders, but I had no idea. I used to go to the store for my grandmother at least 3 to 5 times a day. I went for Coca Cola, Milk, Bread all at different times, I went for her favorite desert which was mille-feuilles with custard (sometimes cream when she wanted something different). I went often for odds and ends and that’s just the way it was.

    Just yesterday I was talking to my mother about growing up and did my grandmother ever realize that she would leave such an imprint on my life and that I would remember her and the days and nights with her for the rest of my life with a huge smile and that I always felt loved by her.

    I’ve been very nostalgic lately, but I think it’s because I’m going through major personal changes, getting married, moving away etc. that suddenly I’m seeing all those that I’m leaving behind and those that are long gone and I’m holding onto the memories tight, I don’t want to forget not as though I could, but I want them close. Sigh growing up is sometimes very hard to do.

  3. I grew up on a small farm in rural Arkansas. I had two older brothers. My Uncle lived some 20 miles away on a farm and had five kids (2girls/3 boys). If major work needed to be done on either farm the entire family simply showed up and we worked all day until finished. Small jobs were always found for the younger childern so they could contribute. We built barns, cut hay, or rounded up livestock for various reasons. My Mother and Aunt spent the day fixing meals – as soon as lunch was finished they started planning dinner. After dinner we played kick ball or baseball until it was to dark to see and all had to go home. Another memory of mine are the letters written back and forth between our family in Arkansas and our relatives in New Mexico. Big, fat letters with news of farm happenings, the weather, and what each child was doing. The letters were passed around to all kin here in Arksasas so everyone could read the news. These letters are stuffed in a shoebox in a closet and would be a very good representation of farm life in New Mexico and Arkansas during the 20 years in which they were written.
    We don’t have time for such any more. Days are spent working, cleaning, and ferrying kids around. We e-mail, use cell phones, and hire sub-contractors. We have lost something important – the connection between families, a willingness to share, and the ability to stop and play. I wonder if what we have replaced it with is as important? or will be considered as important in 20 years?

  4. Games we used ta play; kick the can, nicky nicky nine door, stick-ball, street hocky, man-hunt(that one actaully started from being chased by the local bullys..)Hardy boys(we investigate strange happenings in our nieghborhood) Can’t imagine letting my kids outta my site, nevermind having the freedom we had. At 7 or 8 I could take off for the whole day, and all that was said was” take a lunch case ya get hungry” hehe

  5. Your blog brought back memories and I am very much into nostalgia since I am a old boomer. It is a pity that so much has changed and been lost due to advances but also unwanted changes within society. I live in an area that brings it all back and love the entire community for that and hope that this little enclave never changes.

  6. Picture it, 1980’s Montreal…

    I grew up in a ‘low income’ apartment complex on the wrong side of the tracks. We didn’t have our own stoop so we had to settle for hanging out in the park or all the other places kids roam and manage to find trouble.

    There were always visitors, we would be insulted if our neighbours didn’t drop in all the time. Well, some of them, some wouldn’t make it past the threshold. Unfortunately I only had one uncle who’d regularly give me money ;)

  7. Great memories. You remind me of how much freedom we had as kids. I’d take off on my bike at dawn and wouldn’t come home until I was starving or the sun was setting. Being kept inside the house was a punishment; rainy days were torture (and often my exasperated mother would put us in rain hats, coats and boots and send us out to splash in the puddles.)

    Our neighbors were just extensions of our parents. We were everyone’s kids, and if you tracked dirt into your friend’s house, her mother would yell at you and make you sweep it up, just as if you were her own. Then, no matter how many of us were over, she’d make a pile of sandwiches and lemonade and feed everyone at the picnic table in the backyard.

    You could always count on getting a doughnut or cookie from the retired folks in the neighborhood, as long as you hadn’t been walking on their lawn or teasing their dog. :)

  8. Wow. i never had any of that. i’m only nineteen though…
    but that sounds idyllic.
    i always wanted to have friends within walking distance…all i had was my neighbor who was a year older and her mom didnt like us.
    i was a latchkey kid, but my parents ALWAYS had to know where we were and where we were going and all of that. no freedom like y’all had in the 70s…
    i think i should’ve been born in the seventies. yep. the 90s were…nothing special.
    *sigh* i’m jealous.

  9. What sweet memories. I grew up 50 miles south of Chicago, and my grandparents were south-siders in the 40’s. I now live in a 1910 craftsman, and I appreciate our kind, helpful neighbors. We are working on putting up the fence. There is a beautiful park with flowers and fountains within one block, and also a convenient store. It’s almost like my (semi) idyllic youth. Then there are the neighbors who march onto my porch on a cool, peaceful evening to tell us they don’t like our house trim or the holly bush I just planted, and to let us know they noticed we missed church last Sunday. So… I’m longing for a few quiet acres out in the country ;)

  10. Ah, the days. From the time I was five until I was 10, we lived in a neighborhood where all of us kids played — and fought — year round. We played kick the can, hide and seek, and kickball in the street. We mowed lawns with a push mower for 50 cents a yard. In the winter, we built snowmen. All my friends were Catholic, so we played First Communion (I was the lone rebel Lutheran in the crowd). The boys around the block taught us all the really nasty swear words they learned from their dad — but we knew enough not to use them around adults. The moms got together at 10 am for coffee.

    When I was ten we moved across town. I didn’t have as many friends and had fewer people to play with, but I still rode my bike all over and spent a lot of time out playing in the summer. I just had to do it with my little sister. Ugh.

    I wish we had an environment where kids could play like that now. I think air conditioning had something to do with it, but it’s happened even in parts of the country where air conditioning isn’t prevalent. It isn’t because of the perverts — there were just as many perverts then. Somewhere along the line, we began to “manufacture” activities for kids to do instead of letting kids figure stuff out for themselves. Frankly, little league or ballet for three year olds seems a little extreme.

  11. All of this reminds me of my childhood too – I grew up in a small town, there are eight kids in my immediate family, and our house was always full of extra kids.
    We could, and did, roam the neighbourhood at will, constantly went to the corner store on errands.
    It also reminds me of a recent song by an Artist called Sandi Thom called “I wish I was a punkrocker”, and the lyrics start with- “I wish I was a punkrocker with flowers in my hair, in ’77 and’69 revolution was in the air, I was born too late into a world that doesn’t care…….”

  12. aaaahhhhh. So much nostalgia indeed.
    I was born in 1963 and grew up on a state housing estate in a small Northern English village on the outskirts of a very large industrial town.
    So much of what you wrote Rosina took me back to my own childhood. Though no one would have phoned first because hardly anyone had a phone. People just turned up and as children we loved it – all those extra playmates and the chance of overhearing some bit of adult news we weren’t supposed to hear. All the neighbours of my parents generation were known to us as ‘uncle’ and auntie’ and those older were to be treated with utmost respect and called “Mr” and “Mrs” and it was usually one of these who would call out to you from the doorstep and had a lollipop for you when you passed by.
    I can really relate to all that Lynn wrote too.
    I have lived in NZ for almost 22 years now (came here as an adult) and was shocked on arrival to find that a lot of people didn’t even know who their neighbours were (their names I mean). I suppose where I grew up you really were on each other’s doorsteps, whereas here people have large sections and it’s a lot harder to chat over the back fence when you are hanging out the washing.
    Sometimes I feel quite sad for children growing up these days without that general sense of community around them.

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